As school draws to an end, many children will participate in summer camps over the upcoming months. Summer camps can promote positive social development, independence, confidence, and resilience. Summer camps may also cause worry and anxiety, especially for first time campers. Understandably, children may become uncomfortable or even anxious when they are placed in a new environment with unfamiliar people. In fact, roughly 95% of children experience at least some homesickness when they are away from their home at summer camp.
Children who are experiencing doubts or anxiety regarding camp may show the following symptoms or behaviors:
- Stomach aches
- Difficulty sleeping
- Reluctance to go to camp
- Difficulty separating from parents and/or distress if they cannot be with a parent
- Worry regarding harm coming to them or a loved one
Helping children establish positive coping tools for being away from parents is critical. Recommendations regarding fostering a successful transition to camp are below.
1. Validate and normalize their feelings. Children may be embarrassed about feeling nervous to go away to camp. Let your child know that it’s okay to miss home. Avoid dismissing their feelings by saying comments such as: “You’ll be fine or everyone loves camp.” These types of comments may discourage your child from opening up to you. Instead, validate their concerns and express empathy for their emotional experience. Encourage the conversation by asking open-ended questions. For example: I know it can be challenging to be away from home. How are you feeling about camp? You can also reflect on your own experiences with camp.
2. Set expectations. Familiarize your child with the camp environment and teach them about camp activities. When possible, show the child pictures of the camp and/or their counselor so that they will know what to expect. Discussing the daily schedule as well as how they can contact you while they are away is also beneficial.
3. Talk positively about camp. Help your child get excited about camp. Talk positively about the new friends they will make and the fun activities they will participate in.
4. Promote healthy coping. Find out what your child’s specific worries are, and then collaboratively problem-solve with them. Most kids worry about being homesick, but their specific concerns may surprise you. For instance, some children will worry that they won’t be good at the activities, that they won’t make any friends, or that their bed will not be comfortable. It can be helpful to talk about the “what ifs,” and brainstorm coping strategies for their worries. Role-play different scenarios with your child so that they will know exactly what to do if such a situation arises.
5. Practice asking for help. Reassure your child that they will get help from counselors and friends, when needed. Be sure they know that they can always talk to someone at camp about their feelings or concerns. You might also want to alert the camp counselor about strategies that help calm and comfort your child.
6. Prepare children to spend the night away from home. Having a sleepover or spending a night at a relative’ s house can help your child prepare for sleep away camp. Prepare your child for the sleepover and praise their ability to cope with being away from home.
7. Facilitate a positive goodbye. Once at camp, try to keep goodbyes short. Long goodbyes can make the transition more difficult and may increase a child’s anxiety.
8. Stay in contact. Pack envelopes and stamps so that your child knows it will be easy to communicate with you while at camp. When speaking with your child via phone, focus on successes they have had at camp.
9. Express confidence in your child’s ability to cope. Do no promise to pick up your child as soon as they get homesick. Instead, ask your child to do their best to cope and talk again the following day, if needed. Remind your child of successes they’ve had in the past when they have confronted a difficult situation. You can also check in with your child’s counselor to assess how your child is transitioning.
Empowering children to self-regulate and adjust to being away from home is an important developmental skill that they will utilize for the rest of their lives. Praise your child for their bravery in going to camp. For persistent anxiety you should seek the help of a psychologist as they can help your child gain mastery of their anxiety.